World Health Day, April 7, 2001, focuses on an undervalued and often misunderstood aspect of our health — our mental health. The World Health Organization and its partners in public health are taking steps to change this perception.

Recent scientific and medical research demonstrates that mental health is a foundation for good health — physical and mental health are inseparable. However, most of us — governments, public-health practitioners and citizens alike — devote less attention and consequently fewer resources to mental health.

One out of five individuals will develop a common mental disorder such as depression or anxiety every year. Two out of every 100 people in our community will develop schizophrenia or manic depression (bipolar disorder) in their lifetime. Two to three percent of all families have a family member affected by intellectual disability. Other families will feel the impact of a loved one living with dementia or epilepsy.

The 1996 Global Disease Burden Report, coauthored by WHO, the World Bank and Harvard University, established the extent of disability related to mental disorders. Five of the 10 leading causes of disability are mental disorders: depression, substance abuse, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression) and obsessive compulsive disorder. Among the other major disablers are heart disease, infectious diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia, road accidents and cancer.

The symptoms of a mental disorder may greatly reduce one’s ability to work, study or participate in community life. The disorder could lead to other health problems, and even to suicide. To make matters worse, if one suffers from a mental disorder, one may be shunned by the community.

On average, the 37 countries and areas in the Western Pacific Region devote less than 1 percent of their health budgets to the treatment and prevention of mental disorders. Meanwhile, region-wide, one out of five individuals who seek the help of a health-care professional suffers from a mental disorder. Of this number, only a fraction are properly diagnosed, and of those who are, few ever get treatment or receive appropriate care.

The future presents even more of a challenge to our mental health. The number of people at risk of developing mental-health problems is expanding daily. The number of aged people in the world will more than double by 2025; a proportionate increase in the number of cases of dementia will occur. Megacities will expand intensifying pressure on poor, migrant populations who live in overcrowded slums. Few will have access to basic health and social services.

Medicines and therapy must be available in community settings. To do this, national governments must devote resources for medication and for training health-care workers in mental health to improve diagnosis, treatment and promote awareness of good mental health. Legislation must be prepared to ensure that governments protect the rights of individuals with mental disorders to dignified and appropriate care. Families and communities need support to help care for those living with mental disorders and also to promote a better understanding of mental disorders.

Positive responses to mental-health challenges are emerging in the region. Adults in China are receiving treatment for epilepsy. Children in Cambodia are dealing with stress through play and games. Australian and Malaysian nongovernmental organizations and mental-health professionals are working with their governments in areas that affect mental health. The Mongolian government is integrating mental-health care into the primary health-care system and training more health-care workers in psychiatry.

The quality and productivity of our communities depend on our commitment to broadening access to mental-health services and promoting awareness of the importance of mental health. Our response shouldn’t begin and end on World Health Day as mental health matters to everyone, every day of the year.

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